Sermon: Life’s Design

1.5.2014    Preaching Text: “With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as  plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Ephesians 1:8b-10)

No sooner had the New Year begun (January 2 to be exact) than I received an e-mail from an online vendor announcing their “Winter Blues Sale”!

That’s right, on the 9th day of Christmas, with 3 more to go, I was being advised that Christmas and New Year’s were behind me and that, thus, the depressing, humdrum aspects of everyday life had unceremoniously returned. The solution? A quick purchase, and a ready-made diversion, to raise my spirits again!

And yet doesn’t this company’s appeal resonate with us at least on some level? After all, we’re conditioned to accept their assessment of everyday life as a fact, one we all eventually come to accept as we move beyond childhood and become adults.

This sad wisdom, as I’m always harping on this time of year, is suspended momentarily as we embrace the brief respite of Advent/Christmas with its hope-filled celebrations, sense of mystery, and good-will toward all.

But, alas, as the calendar turns, the more mundane aspects of life re-present themselves and we find ourselves wishing to escape the inertia, perhaps with the purchase of a pair of nice, new shoes!

Then again, Christmas is intended not as a passing respite from life but a new beginning, one that promises a life different from the same old, same old.

The other day, I came across something on the Internet that was pretty funny, and sad, depending on how you look at it. It was a young woman’s response to another young woman’s list of “things to do instead of getting engaged before you’re 23.”

The list implies, as is the fashion today among many, that getting married is a kind of prison sentence, reflecting the humdrum nature of everyday life. Why not go out and travel the world and really live? Why settle for a dreary life of responsibility and steady habit?

In response to the list’s suggestion to “find your ‘thing,” for example, the other young woman blogger, who happens to be married, writes, “I have found my ‘thing’ and at the same time, I am still finding my ‘thing’. And I’ll probably find another ‘thing’. Maybe when I’m 76. Apparently finding your ‘thing’ has an age limit. Better get a move on, youngins!”

Again, the young single woman lists another must-do before marriage: “Date two people at once and see how long it takes to blow up in your face.”

The young married woman’s response? “Seriously, who suggests dating two people at once just to see how long it takes to blow up in your face? For one, that’s not beneficial to anyone, including yourself. For two, maybe that’s why some people don’t marry young, or ever! Because…people [such as you] suggest doing awful things like that.”

Young single woman: “Disappoint your parents.”

Young married woman’s response: “Honey, regardless of what age I chose to get married, I disappointed my parents LONG before 23.”

Young single woman: “Be selfish.”

Young married woman: “Oh dear. You don’t have to tell me to be selfish. I am. I always have been. I always will be. I’m human.

Young single woman: “Explore a new religion.”

Young married woman’s response: “I consciously choose not to explore a new religion. I am educated about other religions, but I have a relationship with Christ, and that’s what I choose. Those religions which I am not educated on, I will educate myself in due time.”

I could go on (as did the list and the critic’s responses to it). The point, however, is not that one must marry, or that there’s anything wrong with being single. Rather, the young critic’s purpose is to refute the increasingly common notion that marriage, or any traditional life, as inherently life-negating.

In today’s intellectual circles, whose ideas have a way of filtering down into the wider culture, the “transgressive” is trumpeted as the ideal. The youthful, one might say adolescent, idea that adult life, nay traditional life in general, is something to be rejected and avoided, that it is antithetical to “authentic” living, has become increasingly popular. This can be seen among a wider swath of the American public, and not just among the young. Then again, it’s nothing a snappy new pair of boots won’t cure!

Perhaps the single most important meaning of Christmas is that God has come to us in the form of a real human being. Thus Christianity is, by its very nature, incarnational, and sacramental, meaning that the spiritual aspects of life are not an abstraction cut off from everyday life, but found in and through the very stuff of everyday life.

Gnosticism, which traditional Christianity rejects but contemporary intellectualism champions, argues not only that this “very stuff of life” is an imperious evil task master, but that the spiritual comes in far more spectacular form. In short, the “stuff” of everyday life is that which prevents us from experiencing the spiritual. It’s too concrete and this-worldly. Thus it is to be rejected, to be transgressed. Genuine “liberation,” then, is effected by moving beyond the stuff of everyday life, along with its presumptuous traditions and so-called immutable facts.

Antiquity, in contradistinction, argued that virtue is not something we are born with. Rather we are born only with the potential or capacity for virtue. We must be shaped and formed by learning, practicing, and inculcating virtue. And this happens not outside or beyond the everyday stuff of life, but in and through it.

We don’t know how to speak at birth, but possess merely the capacity to speak. We must learn it, practice it, and eventually, hopefully, become proficient at it.

Gnosticism, on the other hand, argues that we are born with all the knowledge and virtue we need. The problem is that society, including all other forms of concrete existence, serve to limit and inhibit the self’s fullest expression. Thus we must transgress these norms in order to be liberated, to be free! Only then can the truth be revealed.

Recently I read a thought-provoking article by the Catholic writer and poet, Dana Gioia, former Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. In his article, he laments the loss of genuine religious writing in our time.

He is quick to point out that he’s not talking about the kind of religious writing that is overtly religious. Rather, he means the kind that rarely if ever mentions God, or employs specific religious talk. Such writing touches instead on themes of everyday life, the very stuff of Christianity.

These include, he says, the universal human struggle of living in a fallen world. This involves a “longing for grace and redemption with a deep sense of human imperfection and sin. Evil exists, but the physical world is not evil. Nature is sacramental, shimmering with signs of sacred things. Indeed, all reality is mysteriously charged with the invisible presence of God.”

The religious literary voice also “perceives suffering as redemptive, at least when borne in emulation of Christ’s passion and death. [Such religious writing also] takes the long view of things – looking back to the time of Christ and the Caesars while also gazing forward toward eternity.”

The faithful Christian writer is “intrinsically communal, a notion that goes far beyond sitting in [church] with the local congregation, extending to a mystical sense of continuity between the living and the dead. Finally,” he concludes, “there is a habit of spiritual self-scrutiny and moral examination of conscience.”

As we move away from Christmas and its celebrations, and back to the everyday “stuff” of everyday life, it is essential to remember that Christ comes to us in extraordinary mystery and wonder, but lives with us in and through the quite “ordinary.” Much profundity and joy is to be found as we return to our everyday lives, not as drudgery that requires escape, but a God-infused reality that invites us to a sacramental life that recognizes God incarnate, God with us. Immanuel.   Amen.